A Simple Approach to Character Drivers in User Space

The BaseBoard4 from Demand Peripherals can contain different combinations of 25 different character devices, all multiplexed on to a single USB-serial link. Its drivers, described here, show how writing drivers in user space can get a complex device up and running quickly.

Demand Peripherals, Inc., makes an FPGA-based robot controller that gives a robot or other industrial control systems the high I/O pin count and precise timing that a Linux laptop or single-board computer alone cannot offer. The company has built more than 25 different FPGA-defined peripherals for the controller, and it wanted to offer Linux device drivers for all of them.

Doing 25 drivers in the kernel, although possible, would have required time and effort far beyond what the company could afford. The process of building kernel device drivers would have been even more complicated because the FPGA card connects to the Linux host over a USB-serial link. The solution, illustrated in Figure 1, is to have a dæmon manage the USB-serial port and demultiplex the various FPGA-based peripherals out to their own device nodes. The device nodes are little more than shims that let the high-level application deal with separate device entries for each peripheral.

Figure 1. Example of a User-Space Device Driver

The customer selects the mix of peripherals to be loaded into the FPGA. Figure 2 shows a BaseBoard4 with some cards that demonstrate what might be a fairly common peripheral mix. The system pictured has eight peripherals, including a four-channel servo controller, a dual H-bridge controller, a quad interface for the Parallax Ping))) range sensor, a RAM-based pattern generator (driving the data and clock lines going to a 48-bit shift register that connects directly to the LCD), a unipolar stepper motor controller, a bipolar stepper motor controller, a quad event or frequency counter (connected to a single Parallax light-to-frequency sensor), and a dual quadrature decoder. Schematics for all of these demo cards are on the Demand Peripherals Web site.

Figure 2. Robot Peripherals, All with Linux Drivers

All of the peripherals shown in Figure 2 can be configured and controlled using device nodes in the /dev directory. The following Bash commands, for example, might be part of the higher-level control software for the system pictured:

# Feed wheel quadrature counts to a motor control program
cat /dev/dp/quad0 | my_motor_pgm &
# Feed the same quadrature counts to a navigation program
cat /dev/dp/quad0 | my_navi_pgm &
# Set a stepper motor step rate to 1000
echo "1000" > /dev/dp/bstep1/rate
# Now step 300 steps
echo "300" > /dev/dp/bstep1/count
# Monitor distance reported by a Parallax Ping)))
cat /dev/dp/ping0/dist &
# Set a servo pulse width to 1.5 ms (1500000 ns)
echo "1500000" > /dev/servo/servo4

Use Cases

The above commands illustrate two of three important use cases for the user-space drivers: sensor broadcast and driver configuration. The third use case is bidirectional transfer.

The first use case is sensor broadcast, and in the example above, it's actually multicast of sensor data. Did you know that the /dev/input drivers implement a multicast mechanism? Multiple readers get identical copies of the events that come from the input devices. There is a simple experiment you can do to demonstrate this. Press Ctrl-Alt-F2 (to go to a different console), log in, and run the command sudo cat /dev/input/mice | od -b. Do the same for another console (for example, Ctrl-Alt-F3). Now, move the mouse a little and switch between the F2 and F3 consoles. They both display the same thing, don't they? What a shame that Linux does not have some generic way to do multicast like that of the /dev/input subsystem.

For robotics, the ability to fan a sensor reading out to several processes is particularly important. For example, a quadrature encoder attached to a wheel needs to be seen by both the motor controller software and by the navigation software. The motor controller might need to know if the wheel is turning to know whether the motor is stalled, and the navigation software might count the wheel revolutions to compute the robot's current location.

The second use case is peripheral or driver configuration. DC motor controllers need to know the frequency of the PWM pulses. Stepper motors need to know the step rate, and the SPI (Serial Peripheral Interface) ports need to be told the clock frequency and the mode of operation. Either an ioctl() call or a sysfs-style interface can be used for driver configuration.

Configuration interfaces can be a little tricky, in that the information is often not a simple stream of bytes—it may encompass several different pieces of information. An ioctl() interface typically passes a data structure for complex configurations, while a sysfs interface might use a space-separated list of ASCII-encoded values. Demand Peripherals uses the ASCII-encoded numbers approach, because the overhead of decoding and parsing a line of text is not too onerous given the relative infrequency of driver configuration. Also, being able to cat a sysfs type file to see the driver configuration is kind of handy.

The third use case, bidirectional transfer, is really the most common use case. You probably are already familiar with serial ports, the most common example of bidirectional I/O. Although none are included in the examples above, the FPGA-based robot controller needs bidirectional I/O for peripherals that transparently pass data from one end to the other. These include both FPGA-defined serial ports and SPI ports. You may prefer, as we did, to be able to do block reads and writes until both sides of the interface are open.